A tragic tale

Red Fire EngineTelevision and films often portray a firefighters job as something of a heroic occupation tinged with a hint of glamour as they dash around towns on large fire appliances, (engines), with flashing lights and sirens. The truth however is often far removed from the perceived image of film producers. The image normally seen by the public is when a passing fire appliance is seen on it’s way to an incident. To the firefighter however the journey to an incident is “dead time” and their task will only begin on arrival and the quicker they can safely arrive, the quicker they can render assistance to however is in need of help. I always remember the sound advice given to me when I started my career by an old timer who had been through the Blitz. He told me never to forget that every time “the bells go down”, someone out there is shouting for help and you are the only one in the world at that moment of time that can help them.

As a firefighters career progresses they will encounter many and completely varied types of incident. Some will be large fires, others small. Road traffic accidents, people trapped in lifts, animals in trouble, disasters and so on, the list is almost endless. It is only by a combination of both experience and constant training that a firefighter knows how to tackle any incident no matter how daunting it may seem when they first arrive on scene. It is both the hard training and watching firefighters at an incident that the public least see apart from chance passers-by.

Although to the individuals that require the assistance of the fire service, the reason for our arrival is often to them a major upheaval in their life, to the firefighter, every incident is also a learning opportunity that never ends throughout the span of their career. Some incidents are amusing, run of the mill, are of special interest, sometimes bizarre or unfortunately occasionally tragic.

I have attended numbers of tragic incidents in my career, not all of them on my own fire stations ground. The Moorgate underground train disaster was one such incident I attended. Some incidents due to there size or nature mean that they are too large in manpower requirements for the local crew to deal with. Also work at a incident frequently requires hard physical exertion. The amount of effort is dependent on the task in hand and is rather like the difference between the short concentrated effort of a sprinter or the longer stamina challenging effort of a marathon runner. Either way there is no way a local fire crew can be humanly expected to maintain such an effort for the entire length of their shift. To overcome this problem, relief crews from all around the fire brigades area are brought in to work about three hour stints at a incident before they are themselves in turn relieved by others.

The one tragic incident I always remember was a fire that occurred in Star Lane, Canning Town probably in 1967 but I cannot be sure of the date after all these years. This was in a four storey tenement block since demolished opposite Clarence Road. A fire in a enclosed apartment produces a lethal cocktail of gases and heat.  That particular evening I was riding a fire appliance known as the Pump Escape. It was so called as apart from being a front line fire appliance with a heavy duty pump, it also carried an escape ladder. Although no longer in use, this was the ladder that some readers may remember had two large carriage wheels attached to it to assist manoeuvrability. If more than one fire appliance went to an incident, it was always the Pump Escape that led the way. The prime purpose of this appliance and the crew aboard it was for rescue purposes if required, with follow up fire appliance dealing with water supplies and the like. As an incident wound down in size, this was always the first appliance to be released from the scene of an incident as it was more important to make it’s rescue capability available again.

As an individual, I really liked and trusted the Escape Ladder. Although it was large and heavy, about one ton in weight, requiring four firefighters to handle and manoeuvre it, it was very dependable and would take almost unlimited punishment at an incident. Lighter all metal ladders have subsequently replaced this ladder.

When we arrived at this particular incident in Star Lane, it was at night time and we could see volumes of dark smoke billowing from a open window on the third floor. Constant training meant the crew did not need lengthy instructions what to do, we all knew as part of a team our individuals roles and what was required. We immediately slipped the escape ladder from the appliance, it makes a crashing noise as the considerable weight born by the carriage wheels hit the ground. We wheeled the ladder across the road at speed as we needed the momentum to get the thing over the kerbstone onto the pavement. There was a small communal area between the front of the building and the pavement. This was protected by a wooden picket fence supported at intervals by upright concrete posts. The entrance way to the flats had a further two concrete posts on either side making it too narrow to get the escape ladder through, leaving the only option being to make our own entrance through the fence. The weight and strength of the escape ladder also made it an idea tool for the job, this time as a battering ram as we charged it at the fence. On our third attempt, the section of fence collapsed completely allowing us to wheel the escape ladder up to the building. The ladder was quickly extended to the third floor window. It was not necessary to enter the apartment by the window as during the time we had been engaged in fence breaking, other colleagues from our second appliance wearing breathing apparatus had managed to gain entrance to the apartment by a front door on a landing. It was still an important requirement to have the unused escape ladder in position as firefighters know from experience it is important to have two means of escape from a premise if possible. One never can be certain how a fire situation will develop when one first arrives on scene.

As all this activity was taking place, the officer in charge of the incident would have sent an assistance message by radio as we arrived prefixed by the word priority. Priority messages take precedence over all other radio traffic and a control officer will stop any other radio traffic to answer this type of message in isolation. Assistance message are short and abbreviated and require no explanation to the control officer receiving the message. In this particular incident the message would have been “Make pumps four, persons reported”. What this message means is a further two fire appliance would need to be sent from other fire stations for manpower requirements and that there was reason to believe people were involved or trapped in the fire. The Control Room would immediately send the nearest  available additional fire appliances and also contact the Ambulance and Police control rooms by direct line to order an ambulance and the police to the incident. Again Control Room to Control Room communications do not require lengthy explanations as each will respond without question to the requests of the other. Senior fire brigade officers would also be mobilised. This background activity is also helpful to the officer-in-charge of an incident as it relieves them of additional concerns and allows them to concentrate on the situation in hand.

I made my way up to the apartment via the internal staircase to be met by two colleagues each rushing down carrying a small unconscious child. As I reached the doorway of the apartment another colleague who was part of the breathing apparatus crew emerged with a third unconscious child which he promptly thrust in my arms. Both my colleague and I knew without talking that he would have been exhausted searching the darkness of the apartment by touch for people in incredibly hot oven like temperatures inside the apartment. I hurried back down the stairs with the small child in one arm and administered both mouth to mouth and cardiac resuscitation using my other hand and mouth. It is possible to do this with a small child.

As I reached the roadway, I could see and hurried to an awaiting ambulance which had arrived during all the other activity going on. As I took the child I was carrying into the back of the ambulance the scene was like something out of Bedlam. The other two children were already on board as were the parents. The parents were shouting and screaming in shock and the three children were still unconscious. It was one of those situations I instantly knew what actions to take. The ambulance attendant was attempting to resuscitate one of the children leaving the child I was carrying and another still needing urgent attention. Clearly it was only possible for the ambulance attendant to do one thing at a time and the priority being the children. Neither I nor the ambulance attendant knew if the parents were injured but again one knew if they were screaming, they were alive and as such, a lessor priority. This still led a third child unattended when a Roman Catholic priest popped his head through the rear door and asked if he could help. I immediately told him to get aboard and with that the back doors of the ambulance closed and we sped off into the night towards Queen Mary’s Hospital.

I told the priest to immediately give cardiac and mouth to mouth resuscitation to the third child but unfortunately he was not trained in first aid. I quickly felt the third child’s pulse on the carotid artery in the neck but could feel none. The carotid artery is a easier and more positive location to feel a pulse rather than the wrist. This left me with no choice other to give the child a thump on the chest in an attempt to induce a cardiac shock which sometimes makes the heart start beating again. I also quickly showed the priest how to cover the child’s nose and mouth with his own mouth and breathe air into the lungs while at the same time using two fingers on the chest to rapidly and continuously pump the heart. A child’s heart beats much faster than an adult making a need for much faster although gentler pressure. It more like constant prodding with two finders. The priest learned his task rapidly but the journey to the hospital was a traumatic one. The route had a considerable number of sharp bends which threw us all from side to side as it sped along. The anxious cries of the parents added to the trauma of the journey.

We eventually arrived at Queen Mary’s Hospital and hurried into the accident and emergency area past other patients awaiting treatment and directly into the treatment room. The ambulance service had already advised the hospital while we were on route of the situation and they had immediately cleared all emergency treatment rooms to await our arrival. As I handed my child over to the waiting doctors and nurses my part of the operation had come to an end. It’s at times like this when suddenly one becomes very conscious that you are like a fish out of water. Standing in the patient waiting area wearing full firefighting uniform including my helmet and axe but with no fire. My fire tunic would have smelt a bit too as smoke from incidents does cling to clothing for a while. In some ways I felt at that moment as ridiculous as a balloon seller when they reach their last balloon to sell. An adult standing with only one balloon crying who wants to buy this.

After about 10 minutes a doctor came back out of the treatment room and told me the sad news that all three children had died. I assume their small lungs could not cope with the lethal cocktail of fumes. Their age ranges must have been about from one to four or five and somehow this seemed to make things more tragic. For me there was nothing else left to do but find a well earned cop of tea in the hospital and telephone my control room to make arrangements to transport me back to my station.

The reason I raise this incident is not only because it is one that vividly remains in my mind, but because it is the type of thing that firefighters experience away from the public eye. There are no gongs or medals, just incidents that one has the inner satisfaction of knowing one has done the best that one has trained for. As for myself being the person in the ambulance? Well the fire service work, train and act as a team which pays real dividends in times of crisis. I was only part of a team and due to circumstances made that trip in the ambulance. If the circumstances had been slightly different then it would have been another colleague of mine in that ambulance instead of myself.

As to the Roman Catholic priest who rendered great assistance that night I never heard of again. I never knew his name, or where he came from or what happened to him afterwards or later in his career. I only know we shared a short moment in time together like ships that pass in the night.

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